Original Sin: The Clinton’s administration’s commitment to NATO enlargement

I’ve been working on a paper on NATO enlargement that is supposed to appear in February, and when it does I’ll post a link to it. Meanwhile, I want to emphasize a few broad points about the policy.

First, while there has been a good deal of discussion recently about what Western officials “promised” Gorbachev about NATO during negotiations over German reunification, the key decisions about enlargement were made after the Soviet dissolution by the Clinton administration, not the George H.W. Bush administration. What is true is that a commitment to preserve NATO as the foundation of Western security was made under Bush I, and as far as I know that commitment was supported by all NATO member-states at the time (see the 1990 London NATO Summit Declaration). The decision to enlarge NATO to take in new members other than a united Germany was made gradually, and without a lot of fanfare, by the Clinton administration over the course of 1993 and 1994.

That decision, moreover, was driven in no small measure by domestic political considerations, particularly Clinton’s desire to woo East European heritage voters in the key mid-West states in the lead up to the “Contract with America” Congressional elections of November 1994. By the end of 1994, Clinton was effectively committed to enlargement politically. The administration’s position was that enlargement was going to take place, although a decision about what countries would be taken in, and when they would be taken in, would be made later – hence the title of a 1999 paper by James Goldgeier: “Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO.”

I can recall realizing at some point in that period – my guess is in late 1994 – that the Clinton administration had decided, to my surprise, to move forward with enlargement. My reaction was that doing so was a terrible idea, but more importantly I remember thinking that it was striking that a strategic choice of that magnitude had been made with very little public debate. My recollection was confirmed by my (admittedly limited) research in preparing the e-journal submission. I can find no opinion piece in The New York Times or The Washington Post on enlargement before late 1994, after which there is a growing number of opinion pieces in both papers, peaking in 1997 and then tapering off after the first round of enlargement in 1999.

I should add that it is also clear that there was intense opposition to enlargement within the U.S. foreign policy elite once the debate got started, from both sides of the aisle, and from putative “hawks” as well as “doves.” George F. Kennan referred to it in a Times op-ed piece as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era.” The historian John Lewis Gaddis would write in 1998:

…historians – normally so contentious – are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill-conceived, ill-timed, and above all, ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world. Indeed I can recall no other moment in my own experience as a practicing historian at which there was less support, within the community of historians, for an announced policy position.

No doubt there was rather less consensus among political scientists, but it is certainly my impression that a significant majority thought it was ill-advised or at least premature.

Anyone doubting the extent of the opposition to the policy should read not only the following letter to President Clinton opposing enlargement but the names of the people who signed it as well:

“Open Letter to President Clinton,” June 6, 1997, available at http://www.bu.edu/globalbeat/nato/postpone062697.html

Nonetheless, as Strobe Talbott makes clear in his memoirs, and many other sources confirm, the “not whether but when” decision was more-or-less made in the second half of 1993 but was initially played down by an administration that wanted to have its cake and eat it too – that is, it wanted to appease East European governments that wanted security guarantees in anticipation of a possible future threat from Russia, it wanted to curry favor with heritage voters in the U.S., but it didn’t want to antagonize Russia unduly, given that it was absolutely clear by then that enlargement was viewed not only as a security threat by Moscow but as an effort to isolate and contain Russia. The administration’s political commitment to enlargement became increasingly clear over the course of 1994 as it came under pressure from Republicans for being “soft” on security and NATO as the November elections approached. (A commitment to enlargement by 1999 was part of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”)

I was not a huge fan of the Clinton administration, for a variety of reasons, but I have long felt that its handling of enlargement – and more broadly its failure to try to build a new security architecture for post-Cold War Europe that would include Russia, and thus be sustainable – was its greatest foreign policy failing. Indeed, I would argue it was its greatest failing, period. That a decision of that importance was made at least in part for fleeting domestic reasons, and with little public debate until after the decision was in fact made, is, well, disgraceful. I should say that by the end of 1994 the commitment was political, not legal, which is why there was still so much debate about it, but the political commitment made it very difficult for the Clinton administration to back off after 1994.

My guess is that, while there were many in the administration who very much wanted to help Russia – so-called “Russia firsters” like Talbott, and others who were opposed to enlargement per se, including senior officials in the Defense Department (the former Secretary of Defense, William Perry, reportedly considered resigning because he felt so strongly that enlargement was a mistake) – the real “decider” was Clinton himself, who was not part of the World War II “greatest generation,” had little foreign policy experience, was not a strategic thinker, and was very focused on, and knowledgeable about, domestic politics.

At any rate, the main point of this post is to highlight the extent of opposition to enlargement in the United States from its inception. However, while I certainly felt those opposing the policy had much the better of the argument, what they did not have was an argument about why forgoing or postponing enlargement would make domestic political sense for Clinton. There were a lot of Polish heritage voters but almost no Russian heritage voters.

It is also the case that even before the Clinton administration had committed to enlargement, there were many who argued passionately that bringing Russia into the West was the most important strategic objective facing Washington at the end of the Cold War, and that failing to do so would create huge problems down the road.

Let me conclude, then, by quoting at length from an article that I came across in my files as I was preparing the e-journal piece. It appeared in Foreign Policy (Winter 1993/1994) under the title, “Letter from Eurasia: Russia and America: The Honeymoon’s Over,” and was written by a pro-Western Russian liberal, Alexei K. Pushkov, then deputy editor-in-chief of Moscow News. I agreed with Pushkov’s argument then, and I agree with it now. The paper concludes with the following advice to Washington:

The United States ought to acknowledge Russia’s legitimate interest and its special role in the CIS [the Commonwealth of Independent States, which at the time consisted of all the former Soviet republics except the Baltic states- EWW]. Unless Moscow resorts to military threats or direct blackmail, there is nothing wrong with Russia being the nucleus of the CIS: The price the West must pay for the Soviet Union’s disintegration is accepting Russia’s leading role in the area of its historical influence…

The second mistake would be attempting to marginalize Russia – for instance, by accepting East European countries into NATO while leaving Russia outside. Such a step would deal a serious and possibly fatal blow to the Kozyrev [then Russia’s pro-Western foreign minister – EWW] line, irritate the military, stir up anti-Western feelings, and weaken pro-Western politicians.

An even bigger folly would be to try to use Ukraine to counterbalance Russia. Unlike U.S. support of the Baltic republics, which almost all Russians regard as a “cut-off piece of bread,” an American openly taking sides with Ukraine would set off a surge of anti-American feeling that even the most democratic and Western-minded Russian politicians would have difficulty controlling….

The United States still enjoys a most-favored-nation status in the Russian political psyche. American assistance to Russian reforms still earns it Russians’ gratitude. It would be a disaster if prejudice and distrust prevailed in both countries. It is one thing if Russia really reverts to old imperial policies. Then America would have cause for alarm. It is quite another if it pursues its natural goals and interests by political means. The West must understand the critical difference. Otherwise, America and its Western friends risk losing Russia for good.

It is safe to say that Russia has since reverted “to old imperial policies,” if by “imperial” one means a willingness to use hard and soft power to establish its hegemony in post-Soviet space. Whether we might have a different Russia today without NATO enlargement, or had enlargement been delayed and limited, will never be known. What is clear is that a great many people warned from the outset that NATO enlargement was almost certainly going to keep Russia out of Europe and out of the West, and that in any case it was unnecessary step unless and until a real threat, not some anticipated future threat, actually emerged from an “imperialist” Russia.

This not meant to be a blanket indictment of U.S. or Western policy toward post-Soviet Russia — for example, I believe the West provided Russia with a good deal of very important financial and other assistance in the 1990s, and that in the absence of that assistance internal conditions would have been considerably worse. Moreover, I believe most of what has happened inside Russia since 1991 is the product of internal, not external factors. And my opinion of Putin has gotten worse and worse over time, and I now believe he has turned out to be a terrible leader for Russia. But I do think NATO enlargement was a huge strategic mistake, and I think the odds are that we would have a considerably less hostile and illiberal Russia today if the Clinton administration had taken a different path.